EU-Ukraine Relations Hit Visa Bump

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- EU-Ukraine relations risk hitting a fresh bump over visas, with Kiev blaming delays in a new travel deal on anti-immigration politics in the west and Brussels saying the "technical" issues will soon be resolved.

Ukraine had expected to seal a visa facilitation package for post-January 2007 travel to the EU in Helsinki on 27 October, joining Russia in a scheme to avoid EU visa price hikes from €35 to €60 per person next year.

But France, Germany, Austria, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary are delaying agreement on the text due to a dispute on readmission of third country nationals - people from countries such as China or Pakistan who enter the EU via Ukraine.

"We have proposed the same workable formula for readmission as the one the EU already has with Russia and Russia has with Ukraine," a Ukrainian diplomat told EUobserver. "So we do not see how our formula could form a 'negative precedent' in the region."

He added that the talks are "fixable" when it comes to new member states, but that they are "political" in the three western powers, with Ukraine not getting proper EU recognition for its help on EU border and security policies in Moldova and the Western Balkans.

"We understand the immigration fears of the EU countries," the Ukraine contact stated. "But we need a proper balance of actions. We cannot be in a position of giving help where we are needed but getting nothing in return."

EU officials handling the talks rejected the Ukrainian analysis, however. "There will be a visa facilitation deal with Ukraine if not this month, then next month," one EU diplomat stated.

"It's absolutely not political. It's technical and there is plenty of good will from the EU side," he added. "Ukraine is not being treated as a second class neighbour next to Russia. If anything, Ukraine is getting privileged treatment."

Kiev's figures show the country "readmitted" 1,844 third-country nationals from the EU last year, compared to 1,211 in 2004, with the country calling for EU help to boost poor conditions in migrant squatter camps near the Polish and Slovak borders.

"Ironically, the costs per migrant in temporary residence centres in Ukraine sometimes exceed the daily income levels of the populace around them," the Ukrainian official indicated, with average wages in Ukraine at just €170 a month.

In early 2005, Ukrainian visas hit the German headlines after it emerged that a Berlin anti-red tape bill known as "Volmer's law" saw hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians enter the EU between 2001 and 2003, some with the help of criminal gangs.

Friends in high places

The EU's own visa politics is not as open as it could be, with one story doing the rounds in Brussels that a visa deal for Moldova was given impetus in September only after a dynamic Czech diplomat got a highly-placed job in the European Commission's justice wing.

"The dossier had been sitting there for months and nobody cared, then a few weeks after she came, Prague and commissioner Franco Frattini launched a new initiative and it began moving," an EU insider said, with Chisinau set to initial an agreement later this week.

The Ukraine visa hiccup comes after pro-Russian politician Viktor Yanukovych - who is tinged in Brussels with suspicions of corruption and poisoning relating to the 2004 Orange Revolution - came back to power as prime minister last month.

Mr Yanukovych has said Ukraine will stick to its post-revolutionary, pro-EU path but is keen to "pause" NATO-membership progress. The European Commission has responded by taking a "wait and see" approach with the new leader for now.

Source: EU Observer